Bogus "miracle cures and quack physicians probably have been around as long as the health care profession. Con artists prey upon the unhealthy because sick people may be so desperate to find a cure that they will try any possible treatment, however expensive and farfetched.

These snake oil salesmen have been on the rise in recent years, as our aging population has more medical problems...millions of underinsured and uninsured Americans search for health care options that they can afford...and the surging popularity of "alternative medicine" makes unscientific treatments seem more mainstream.

Sometimes it's obvious when a claim is fraudulent—but certain scams and unethical practices are difficult to spot…


Cheap health insurance. Many of the more than 45 million Americans who are without health insurance are desperate to find affordable coverage. Disreputable insurance companies offer these people exactly what they want—health insurance at a low price, sometimes as little as $50 per month.

Most buyers are so thrilled to find insurance they can afford that they don't pay attention to the fine print. Many of these policies have huge deductibles, scant benefits and other restrictions that make them virtually worthless.

Most policyholders do not discover the problems until they have a serious health condition and receive the bill.

What to do: Look for a policy that covers doctor visits and protects against a major medical expense. A way to spot-check the quality of a policy is to look at the benefits for hospital stays. A good policy should pay $500 or more per day for the hospital room, with additional coverage for other hospital costs. An inadequate policy might provide only $100 a day.

Wise: Contact your state's insurance commissioner to find out if complaints have been filed against the company. Blue Cross/Blue Shield offers many reputable plans, and Kaiser Permanente has a good reputation for a health maintenance organization (HMO).

  • Natural appetite suppressants. Unscrupulous marketers claim that there are natural supplements that help you lose weight-but these supplements don't work or have dangerous side effects. The most heavily promoted "appetite suppressants" include ephedra, garcinia cambogia and hoodia.

Ephedra is an herbal stimulant, and like other stimulants, it does suppress appetite but at the price of increased heart rate, nervousness and agitation. In large doses, ephedra has killed people, and the FDA has removed it from general sale though it's still available through herbalists and on the Web.

Garcinia cambogia (a fruit from Asia) and hoodia (from a succulent African plant) are not stimulants and seem to be safe—but no studies have shown them to be effective.

What to do: The only reliable cures for excess weight are consuming fewer calories and getting more exercise.

  • Organ transplants in developing countries. America's organ donation program can't keep pace with the demand for transplants. For patients languishing on waiting lists, flying to a developing country where organs can be purchased on the black market might seem viable.

Before you board a plane to India, the Philippines, Hungary or Russia and agree to pay $1,000 to $100,000 for an organ, consider that you're putting yourself in the hands of people who are more interested in taking your money than saving your life.

These people might find an organ for you—but you might not receive it until you've been milked for many times the agreed-upon price. Some patients are told at the last minute that someone else will pay more for the organ, which might or might not be true. To get the organ, you have to top this other offer. Even when patients do get their organs, their transplants often are performed according to medical standards that are not as strict as they are in the US.

What to do: Talk to your doctor about the best options.

Unethical Practices

  • Bonuses from HMOs and PPOs to doctors who skip useful tests. HMOs and preferred provider organizations (PPOs) often give cash bonuses to doctors who don't perform pricey tests-even when those tests are in the patient's best interest. They are essentially bribing doctors to scam their patients.

Example: Your HMO or PPO doctor tells you that he/she is going to spare you the invasive thallium stress test (where radioactive dye is injected into your bloodstream) and perform a routine treadmill test without thallium, though the thallium test is warranted.

What to do: When your HMO or PPO doctor tells you that you have a particular health condition, research that condition on a reliable Internet Web site, such as or If the site mentions a test that your doctor has not performed, ask him why it was skipped. If the doctor's response seems evasive, consider getting a second opinion.

  • Unqualified plastic surgeon. Many doctors have switched to plastic surgery in recent years, drawn by the lucrative nature of the specialty and its lower reliance on insurance payments. (Most plastic surgery procedures are elective and not covered by insurance) No law or regulation prevents doctors from changing their specialty to plastic surgery—even if they have no background or training in this field.

Patients likely have no idea that they are trusting their lives and appearances to what are essentially unqualified, untrained novices.

What to do: If you're considering plastic surgery, ask the surgeon…

Are you board-certified in plastic surgery? He/she should be.

At what hospital do you have physician's privileges? A general hospital is fine, but a university hospital is even better-university hospitals tend to have very high standards.

Who will be handling my anesthesia? Don't trust a plastic surgeon who says he'll handle it himself. He may be trying to cut corners and putting your health at risk in the process.

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